HAMPTON, Ga. — Carl Edwards did his seventh celebratory backflip and headed to Victory Lane confident he'd closed in on Jimmie Johnson's bumper in the race for the Sprint Cup title. As the champagne flowed, his spirits were dashed.
Even with his win yesterday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Edwards didn't dent Johnson's lead in the championship standings.
With a masterful final drive to the checkered flag, the two-time defending champion rallied from a rare penalty to finish second and stretch his points lead to a commanding 183 points over Edwards with three races remaining in the Chase for the championship.
"Are you kidding me?" a deflated Edwards asked when told Johnson had finished second. "You've rained on my parade. I could have done without that one. That's unbelievable, he does a great job."
A championship-winning job.
It's mathematically possible that Johnson could clinch his third title next week in Texas. If he leaves there up 323 points over the competition, Johnson would need only to start the final two races to become the first driver since Cale Yarborough (1976-78) to win three consecutive championships.
"I'm just as shocked as (Edwards) is," Johnson said. "I thought we would finish probably ninth or 10th today. I thought I was in big trouble."
So did everyone else.
NASCAR flagged Johnson for speeding on pit road early in the race, and the penalty dropped him a lap off the pace and to 30th in the field. He worked his way back onto the lead lap through cautions, then steadily moved back toward the top 10.
But as the laps wound down, that seemed to be the best Johnson could hope for.
Edwards, meanwhile, knew a victory would be the only chance he had to pull back into Johnson's championship rearview mirror. So he was aggressive on a restart with 17 laps to go to blow past Denny Hamlin and take command of the race.
A debris caution with 13 laps to go regrouped the field, and crew chief Chad Knaus used the break to call Johnson into the pits for a four-tire stop. He restarted the race in 11th with eight laps to go, but picked off cars one at a time to finish second.
His aggressive drive past nine cars almost bit him in the end: his pass of Hamlin on the last lap caused Hamlin to wiggle, and Johnson narrowly avoided wrecking.
Exhausted, he made his way into the post-race news conference and quietly checked the points standings on a television monitor as he headed toward the podium.
"Man, I feel like I went 12 rounds with Tyson today," he said. "That was just a great call, a risky call, but it just goes to show that Chad is out there racing. He's not trying to ride around and get points. He's out there to earn them. He called me in for tires and told me to put my cape on and off we went.
"We just fought and fought and fought. I leave here very happy — it's almost like a win today."
Long after the finish, Edwards was still in awe.
"I looked up there on the scoreboard and I saw that he was running seventh, eighth, ninth, somewhere in there most of the second half of the race," Edwards said. "I truly didn't know until I looked at the scoreboard that Jimmie had made that back up. I got to see some video and they put on some tires and went for it and that's pretty amazing.
"He's just one of those guys who does it right ... with the way they're running, it's going to be really tough to beat them."
Hamlin finished third and was followed by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch. David Ragan was seventh and Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 10.
Despite his comfortable margin in the standings, Johnson has resisted laying claim to yet another title. He realistically won't clinch the championship for another two weeks in Phoenix — the same place where he notched a fourth-straight win last season to break Gordon's spirit in what had been a fabulous race for the title.
This Chase isn't nearly as exciting, but his run at Atlanta proved Johnson won't slow down over the final three weeks. He figured he had a car good enough for a top-10 finish yesterday, but pushed for every last position.
"You just can't sit still and be content with sixth, seventh ... you gotta do it," he said. "My outlook is better. There's three races left and our points margin is bigger than its been. It's a step in the right direction, but until I have that trophy in my hand, I can't loosen up on this."
It's left Edwards with no room for error over the final stretch. He'll need to win at Texas — and the winner of Atlanta has gone on to win the next week in Texas the past three years — to stay in contention, and even that may not be enough.
"Three more good tracks for us," Edwards said. "But, man, Jimmie is magic. We've got to go win those next three and hope for the best."